Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Found the Slave-owner’s Will, Now What?

I asked that question when I found the will of Jesse Bass of Nash County, North Carolina nearly 10 years ago. He wrote it on May 6, 1822 and died shortly thereafter. He bequeathed my great-great-grandfather, Robert “Big Bob” Ealy of Leake County, Mississippi, and a slave named John to his youngest daughter, Frances Bass. She later married William "Billy" Eley, and they moved to Mississippi circa 1835. The following is a snippet from his will. He bequeathed a total of 32 enslaved people to his wife, also named Frances, and his 13 children. I'm glad that I pursued the answer to that question because it has essentially led me to more!

Item: I also give my beloved wife FRANCES two negroes namely NED and ANN and two feather beds and furniture, one that came by her, one bureau that came by her, two head of horses . .

Item: I give to my beloved daughter FRANCES BASS, two negroes JOHN and BOB.

Item: I give to my beloved son COFFIELD, two negroes namely GUSTUS & ESTHER.

After finding a slave-owner’s will, I try to locate that enslaver’s estate record to hopefully garner more information, especially if the will doesn’t give me any indication of who among the named enslaved people were my ancestor’s family members. Estate slave inventories can be goldmines if enslaved people are inventoried in family groups or lots or just by observing if young children are valued with their mother or individually right after an adult female in the order of decreasing value. Since Jesse Bass’ will didn’t indicate who Grandpa Big Bob’s mother may have been, I had high hopes of learning more from his estate record when I visited the State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh last summer. To my dismay, a slave inventory was not found in his estate file.

This week, I reread Jesse Bass’ will again. I became more curious about his last wife after reading the phrase “one that came by her”. These five words got me to thinking. Did she come into the marriage with property of her own – slaves and furniture, perhaps? I wondered. I don’t know why it took me this long to investigate the wife when I often instruct researchers to investigate the slave ownership of the enslaver’s wife’s family. Luckily, Internet sources identified her as Frances Pearce; she was Jesse Bass’ third wife he married in 1818 in Halifax County, North Carolina. Jesse’ youngest children, Frances and Coffield, were by this third wife. Luckily again, Internet sources also identified her as being the daughter of Benjamin "Berry" Pearce (c.1750-1810) of Halifax County, North Carolina.

My next step was to see if familysearch.org have digitized estate records online for Halifax County, North Carolina. I hit pay dirt! I found Benjamin's will online and read what his daughter Frances Pearce was bequeathed on March 1, 1810.

I give unto my daughter Frances one bed and furniture, the citizen filley, Negroes, Ned, Augustin, and Anne to her and her heirs forever.

Upon reading his will, I soon discovered that Ned and Ann, who were named in Jesse Bass’ 1822 will, had come from his father-in-law, Benjamin Pearce. Slave ancestral research entails a lot of thinking and analyzing, and I deduced the following five points:

Point No. 1When Jesse Bass wrote his will in 1822, Ned and Ann had been his legal property since 1818, when he married Frances Pearce, who had been the legal owner of them as set forth by her father Benjamin Pearce’s 1810 will. Looks like Jesse decided to transfer ownership back to his wife since they were her legal property before their marriage. Maybe he wanted to do right by her?

Special Note by historian David Patterson: It was customary [not mandatory] among slave owners who appreciated their wives and who had a sense of propriety and fairness (other than to the slaves, of course) that they would will back to wife the property she had brought into the marriage, and in the case of slaves any "increase" (children) borne by the women since coming into his possession. So it makes sense that the people devised by Bass to his wife in the will, who have the same names as the people she received from her father, are most likely the same people or their descendants on the female side.

Point No. 2 – If Ann had given birth to children, those children "belonged to" his wife Frances up until she married Jesse in 1818. Afterwards, Ann's children became his legal property. Again, maybe he wanted to do right by his wife by bequeathing Ann's children to their two children, Coffield and Frances Bass?

Special Note by historian David Patterson: Although Frances' father had willed the people to her and her heirs forever, when she married, under common law doctrine of "coverture" as developed by William Blackstone, her property became her husband's -- unless she had (1) received the property under a deed of trust protecting it for her own use apart from any husband, (2) had established such a trust for her own benefit before marrying, or (3) executed a pre-nuptial agreement reserving ownership to herself of any property she brought to the marriage. Her father's will apparently sets up no trust and the fact that her husband treats the people as his own property in the will indicates that neither of the other options happened. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coverture.

Point No. 3 – In 1822, Coffield and Frances were under 5 years old. Therefore, one can plausibly assert that any slaves their father left to them would also be young. It didn’t make sense to bequeath much older slaves to young children; they would be of low or little value once those children reached adulthood. Grandpa Big Bob was under 10 years old in 1822.

Point No. 4 – Ann was the only enslaved female who Frances Pearce Bass had inherited from her father. One can plausibly assert that if Ann had children, they would be bequeathed to either Frances or her children, Coffield and Frances Bass. Perhaps, John, Bob, Gustus, and Esther were Ann’s children?

Last Point and Observation – Grandpa Big Bob Ealy named one of his daughters Annie and two of his sons John and Gus. Naming patterns are often very good clues. Did I just identify my great-great-great-grandmother, the mother of Big Bob Ealy?  Chances are pretty good that Ann is mine! The preponderance of evidence says that I should call her "Grandma Annie." 


  1. Cuz, you're awesome! enough said.

  2. Those 5 Words. I'm praying this happens for me one day. WoW.

  3. Your ancestors, your knowledge, your experience and skills lead you on this great path! Thanks for sharing this post - this definitely inspires me to take a genealogy trip to Texas and/or to Alabama.

  4. Thank goodness for naming patterns! I am disappointed that the last few generations have shyed away from it. This makes it harder for future genealogists.

    1. Imagine 100 years from now and researchers coming across names like Darquavion, Shequettia, Arquavious, etc. lol

  5. I think your reasoning is correct, but I also think you need to check one point. Equity law could allow for the wife to have a separate estate, property that could be set aside under the wife's control. Such property could have been willed to the wife, brought into the marriage, or been given to her by her husband.

    So Jesse may not have owned Frances' slaves when they married. To me, the will sounds like he is just confirming this fact.

    I don't know North Carolina law for the time, so you would need to check. But in many states, wives did have separate property that they controlled.


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